Sunday, September 03, 2006

Adolescence and the language of the grown man

Writing at the LRB about Andrew Motion's memoir, Frank Kermode touches on some questions about language and experience that have been recently very much on my mind:

Its structure is determined by a fatal accident [the poet's mother] suffers while hunting, when Andrew is 17. We begin and end there: the first chapter concerns the day of the disaster, and the misery of the days that followed as she lay in a coma. We return to that scene at the end. Between these poles the main part of the book is a flashback to earlier youth, which in the course of its telling takes us round to the beginning again.

This design is well executed, and the opening chapter is brilliantly written. Andrew goes off, mildly excited, for an overnight stay at some girl’s house, where he gets news of his mother’s fall. Later he hears about it in more detail from his younger brother. The cause and nature of the accident are very exactly rendered, and this record of a personal loss that might seem too profound to allow artful description is in fact a work of art. Here and elsewhere it might be complained that the writing seems too calculated. There is dialogue, apt, convincing in its way, yet always tempting the reader to think its detail improbable to the point of falsity:

I keep expecting Ruby to say everything will soon be back to normal, but she doesn’t. She goes on crying, making odd quivery whimpers, and then Kit’s crying too, and then I am. The light from outside, flicking off the bare branches of the chestnut tree, swings over us in pale yellow waves. The mattress on my bed gives a muffled creak as it recovers from our weight.

The commonplace opening sentence here may make the rest of the quotation sound a bit too researched, the tree too splendid and the bed’s creak likely to have occurred rather at the moment of composition than at the time described.

Why be suspicious of what is so moving? Why is it slightly embarrassing that at a critical moment a pan of potatoes boils dry on the Aga, or Kit glances at his brother and ‘rolls his eyes’? The blurb says the book is written ‘from a teenage child’s point of view, and without the benefit of hindsight’, but of course it is a work of maturity, a work of hindsight. In fact Motion sets himself a virtually impossible task: an adult writer is setting down what he imagines to be the thoughts and observations of a teenage boy who is, in turn, remembering and reflecting on his earlier life. This complicates a problem that would exist even if there were only two, not three, Motions involved in the business. It is impossible to imagine what an account of childhood ‘without benefit of hindsight’ might be like, unless it resembled Joyce’s attempts in the opening pages of Portrait of the Artist.

The imagined speaker in this book reflects soberly that whereas the childhood of others ends slowly, in fits and starts, his has ended ‘suddenly. In a day.’ Not, surely, a child’s observation; and neither is this: ‘I don’t want to talk about it in grown-up language I haven’t learned yet.’ Of course that is what he does and has to do, with some effect of falsity. The voice is inevitably the voice of the artist: someone ‘made a face’ or ‘lit another cigarette and dotted the ash into the blue glass ashtray’ or clasped and unclasped her hands. When a lamp ‘buzzes’, or the boy kicks aside a mistletoe berry or a yew berry (feared as poisonous), we must assume the adult writer’s imagination is pretending to be the teenager’s memory. Perhaps there are moments when the man has remembered his childish language, betrayed by his fondness for such words as ‘wriggle’, ‘slither’ and ‘squish’. But mostly I think we understand that the grown man is doing the talking and thinking, sometimes with slightly uncomfortable results.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, very important questions for anyone writing about a younger self, or adolescence in particular. Very possibly a crucial difference between YA and adult fiction?

    Personally I don't mind the discrepancy in voice, if it's well-done. The construct of a narrative voice, always prestidigitation, is often more enjoyable because of this additional layer. I wouldn't appreciate a magician's performance if I believed it were real. Perhaps we want to watch ourselves being fooled.

    When I dream, some part of me always knows I'm dreaming - at least I think so.